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Jewish Communal Leaders in NYC Speak Out on the Alarming Upsurge of Anti-Semitism

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Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, has mixed feelings about calling all incidents that trouble Jews actually anti-Semitic, but in general, he’s ready to call a spade a spade. He says that there’s never any “explanation” for anti-Semitism. “It’s just an ugly virus that sometimes lingers in the social environment and then, when it finds a suitable host, infects it,” he explains. “The current climate of political and social polarization, sadly, nurtures the germ and gives it ample hosts.” Photo Credit: berkleycenter.georgetown.edu

Anyone who has been following the media in recent times knows that there has been a dramatic upsurge in anti-Semitic actions and sentiment, whether openly or covertly, in both the United States and countries overseas. Orthodox Jews have been attacked in such New York City neighborhoods as the generally safe Borough Park and Williamsburg, as well as Crown Heights. Eleven Jews were shot to death in a massacre in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Jews are even periodically murdered by Arab terrorists in Israel. In towns across the US, local citizens are vigorously pursuing legal action to prevent Orthodox Jews from moving into their neighborhoods and from turning homes into shuls. Another shocking development is occurring in New York State, where the Department of Education is attempting to require yeshivas to add more time for secular studies, thereby altering their curriculums and causing students to reduce their time for Torah study.

The Anti-Defamation League regularly monitors anti-Jewish activities wherever they take place. Its most recent report on anti-Semitic incidents in the US revealed a significant year-to-year increase. In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents rose by nearly 60 percent, according to a 2017 audit of this phenomenon. This demonstrated the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since the ADL started tracking such data nearly four decades ago. The visible upsurge was due in part to a significant increase in anti-Jewish incidents in schools and on college campuses, which almost doubled for a second year in a row. And more precisely, the organization identified 1,986 such incidents across the country in 2017.

In terms of taking action, the ADL exposes anti-Semitic words and actions—some linked to centuries-old anti-Jewish bias—and conducts detailed polls to track American and global trends. It works with diverse communities and with law enforcement to pinpoint incidents of hate and consequently to mobilize people to work strongly against the unacceptable situations. Moreover, the ADL put together the first model hate crime legislation in America, and 45 states plus the District of Columbia now have laws based on or similar to the organization’s model.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, has mixed feelings about calling all incidents that trouble Jews actually anti-Semitic, but in general, he’s ready to call a spade a spade. He says that there’s never any “explanation” for anti-Semitism. “It’s just an ugly virus that sometimes lingers in the social environment and then, when it finds a suitable host, infects it,” he explains. “The current climate of political and social polarization, sadly, nurtures the germ and gives it ample hosts.”

Rabbi Shafran doesn’t feel that the push against Jewish expansion into new areas should be considered anti-Semitic. “While Jew-hatred certainly plays a role in some of the opposition to influxes of visibly Jewish Jews into new neighborhoods, I think it is inaccurate and unhelpful to label all such opposition anti-Semitic,” he muses. “Many residents of the communities at issue simply want to keep the suburban character of their neighborhoods intact, and would oppose any cohesive group that wanted to move in and build homes and apartments and schools, Jewish or otherwise. That is not to say that they have a right to prevent such influxes, only to stress that their motivations are not necessarily nefarious.”

Regarding the latest rules put forth by the NYS education department threatening the independence of yeshivas, the renowned Jewish thinker declares, “I don’t think anti-Semitism plays any role in the effort. It is clear that some ex-Chassidim, for whatever reason, have publicly and loudly pressed the issue, and that the state responded by declaring its understanding of standing laws. But the governmental overreach and non-comprehension of the Orthodox educational system is still lamentable, and objectionable; and it offends religious Jews, whatever the motivation for the push.”

When asked about the response by his organization and its constituents, he states, “The Agudah has been deeply involved in the issue throughout, through its executive vice president Rabbi Zwiebel’s direct interventions with the pertinent state officials.” The public affairs director adds, “The groundswell of support from parents, as evidenced in the tens of thousands of petition signers, whom we have encouraged, has been very impressive.”

Rabbi Shafran happily notes that twenty-eight New York City Council members, representing different faiths and communities, sent a letter to New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, expressing “deep concerns” about the state’s updated guidelines for private-school education.

On the question of whether President Trump is in any way responsible for the upsurge in anti-Jewish activity, given his flirting with far-right groups during the presidential campaign, the Agudah spokesman states, “I don’t think it’s fair to blame the president, though the political polarization of American society of late, and the rancor that passes for public discourse these days – which is fueled by a number of factors – certainly provides fertile soil for hatreds, including Jew-hatred, to flourish in.”

Mark Stern, Chief Legal Officer for the American Jewish Committee, has a few thoughts on the overall topic as well. He says that in Europe, anti-Semitism arises from the sentiments of increased nativism and virulent nationalism, as well as from Islamist and other groups that espouse hate toward Jews and the state of Israel. Ironically, Stern notes, “Both right-wing groups, and the left-wing – such as the Labor Party in England – regularly voice anti-Semitic comments.” The AJC official further states that nowadays, the Internet allows people to more easily exchange anti-Semitic views around the world.

Regarding the issue of trying to block Orthodox Jews from moving into local areas, Stern says that while there could be some raw anti-Semitism involved, he thinks that the main underlying concern is the change in housing patterns that occurs when the Orthodox Jews develop large-scale houses in suburban neighborhoods. Separately, he proposes that the issue of the state imposing its will on yeshivas in New York is not remotely connected with anti-Semitism. “It’s a case of existing state law versus a lawsuit brought against the yeshivas,” Stern asserts. “It’s an argument over the extent of freedom of religion in the United States and the extent of parental control over their children.”

According to Stern, the American Jewish Committee has various programs – particularly two in Europe – that attempt to get governments to realize the depth of the problem of anti-Semitism in their countries, and then take action to stem it. The AJC also organizes coalitions with other faith and ethnic groups to forge a united front against hatred of Jews. In this vein, the organization’s Mayors United Against Anti-Semitism campaign is the largest public statement in history against the evil phenomenon. To date, nearly 600 American and European mayors have signed AJC’s pledge to publicly address and take action against anti-Semitism in their jurisdictions.

Most recently – in a new shocking twist in American discourse – several members of Congress have expressed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements. While the public outcry from the Jewish community and its allies has been swift and strong, these latest occurrences raise grave concerns about the traditionally rock-solid support for Israel among members of Congress.

It is clear that the current increase in anti-Semitism both in America and worldwide is a troubling phenomenon that requires vigorous and vocal opposition from both communal leaders and Jews individually. We all must be constantly vigilant regarding any notable manifestation of Jew-hatred. At the same time, we must continously pray to the One Above for His Divine protection against anyone who might wish to harm us.

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